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Kay S. Hymowitz
J. Crew U.
Colleges’ glitzy advertising broochures promise a curriculum of boundless variety. And that’s the problem: without a common body of knowledge, too many students are getting an empty education.
Spring 1996

Most parents setting out to choose a college for their son or daughter are probably prepared for a campus vastly changed from their own day. Coed dorms, date-rape hot lines, diversity sensitivity groups, and most notably multiculturalism will surprise no one half-conscious during the past decade. Somewhat obscured behind the contentiousness of these changes, though, is a related, equally momentous shift: the complete disappearance of a fixed, coherent curriculum and with it any shared notion of the well-educated man or woman. All that once ordered higher education requirements, majors, the traditional disciplines, the core curriculum—is vanishing into the chaos of postmodernism. "The closer one looks, the more arguments about 'the' university curriculum splinter into a zillion courses," writes Russell Jacoby in Dogmatic Wisdom. "There is no curriculum." It is as if Americans have stood around arguing about who was going to drive while a thief sped off with the car.

Critics of the academy from both the left and the right have rightly bemoaned the current curriculum—if that is even the word for it as fragmentated and incoherent. Yet out of the smoldering curricular ruins has inevitably arisen an organizing force of sorts. That force is simply the individual student or, as we used to say in my house during the especially trying days of early parenthood, Himself: his whims, his desires, his inchoate (and, to be honest, frequently flawed) judgment, or—in the portentous words of the glossy PR materials that now chase any student with a respectable showing on his PSAT—his "individual educational needs." The admissions director from Wesleyan proudly summed it up at a college-night talk at my son's high school. An applicant asked what the director thought the university's biggest problem was. "Our biggest problem is also our greatest strength," he replied enthusiastically. "Students are on their own. They have to figure things out for themselves. We're not going to tell them what they should study or what they should be." 

Many parents, living with kids whose idea of what they, want to study might be more easily satisfied at a downtown dance club than a campus lecture hall, might wonder how institutions devoted to the education of late adolescents can demonstrate so little grasp of their nature. Indeed, the college advertisements depict a student as unreal, as idealized, as the smiling, handsomely outfitted models in the J. Crew catalogs these documents so resemble. And the brochures also hint at the deeper weakness at the heart of the do-your-own-thing curriculum. For the academy is spawning a perilous myth for its still-developing charges: that they can, in all their ripe perfection, step outside society and each create his own one-man culture.

The college brochures yield plenty of examples of how the academy has tried to transform the shattering of the curriculum into a boon for students. These materials are laden with what a postmodernist given to self-reflection might term a discourse of contemporary American desire. Flexibility, openness, independence, freedom: the language of the promotional literature is so uniform, it seems that every admissions office from Occidental to Harvard has uploaded the same public relations software program. Grinnell, enthuses a member of the class of '97 in the Iowa school's recruitment material, a fine example of the genre, "offers something most schools don't. It gives you the chance to be in charge of your education." "Students are independent," proclaims the director of admissions. "Free from core requirements, they design programs that fulfill their own educational needs." 

Nor do the elite schools have any higher vision to offer of the purpose of college education. "We have no requirements," announced the admissions director from Amherst during a college-night sales pitch. Pause for the good news to sink in: "No requirements." (She was not being 100 percent honest. Like many schools, Amherst requires an interdisciplinary team-taught freshman seminar—about which more later.) Admissions people at Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, and Brown, the school that under the prodding of Ira Magaziner first gave us the libertarian curriculum, could claim much the same. To put it in plain English, college students can do just about whatever they want. No wonder Camille Paglia compares college today to summer camp. 

The sheer proliferation of courses, a kind of sorcerer's apprentice approach to the curriculum, amplifies the illusion of undergraduate freedom. The University of Pennsylvania boasts a mind-numbing 2,000 courses but is easily—in fact, literally—outclassed by nearby Rutgers, with 4,000. On a smaller scale, this kind of variety was always a selling point in larger universities. But today smaller schools also strive for the mega-curriculum. Amherst now boasts 600 offerings—but will have to try harder if it wants to compete with Washington and Lee. "In 1985, the Washington Post noted that 'Washington and Lee's 700-course catalogue is the envy of many larger institutions,'" proudly states the brochure for this Virginia school. "In the decade since that quote appeared, the curriculum has grown to include more than 900 different courses." Following this progression, the next decade might find this small liberal arts college (enrollment: 1,620) with more courses than students.

True, most brochures refer to something called "distribution requirements": students must take two or three courses from several general categories, most commonly the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences and math. But the hundreds or thousands of choices available to students stretch the distribution requirement to the borders of triviality—and beyond. The natural sciences and math requirement, for instance, can be satisfied at many schools by courses like "Ethno-Biology" or "Math for the Artist." Furthermore, according to a forthcoming study by the National Association of Scholars titled "The Dissolution of General Education: 1914-1993," introductory courses are fast disappearing. A typical undergrad can easily receive his first and only taste of sociology, say, by studying not Durkheim and Weber but battered women in India.

In other words, students spend their four years browsing the Shopping Mall University, to borrow a phrase from a 1985 book, The Shopping Mall High School, that describes the same trend in secondary schools. There they are free to try on whatever looks enticing—Shakespearean plays or mulatto novels, thirties America or Ming dynasty China. Michael Moffatt, an anthropologist who lived among Rutgers students in the eighties and published his findings in a book titled Coming of Age in New Jersey, found that Rutgers's distribution formula, which requires a major, a minor, and

a mini, one from each of three categories—Humanities/Languages, Social Studies, and Science/Mathematics—doesn't preclude a rigorous curriculum in, say, English, history, and physics. However, it also allows a student to choose a major in dance, a minor in sports studies, and a mini in meteorology.

Though the groaning board of curricular offerings promises satisfaction for every taste and desire, the colleges have not fully escaped one tiresome demand on their students: the major. And where there are majors, there must be requirements, right? But potential applicants need not worry; this wrinkle won't constrain their individuality. Most schools, no matter how small, boast majors in the mid to high double digits; the State University of New York at Albany, which calls itself "A Place for Individuals,'' is on the low side with 53 majors compared, say, with Rutgers with 100. But beyond that, colleges also invite students to create their own majors. The term major is now sometimes qualified into "major" in roguish postmodern fashion, a message to 17-year-old applicants that they should remember that the traditional disciplines are social inventions of dubious value and, as such, a potential barrier to personal expression.

It's rare to find a school that doesn't now promise "Our Unique Interdisciplinary Program" or, as Carnegie Mellon more grandly calls it, "The Freedom of Interdisciplinary Programs." "Our unique Teaching Program of the University Professors," announces the Boston University admissions department, "allows interested students to design their own courses of study, often bridging the gap left by traditional majors." At the University of Pennsylvania, they just come out and say it: "Studentsare able to combine their interests, even if they are seemingly unrelated." "Our curriculum is uniquely open," proclaims the classy brochure from Eugene Lang College of the New School, its dusty blue, pink, and purple lettering on a sleek black background befitting its downtown image. "Students design their own programs.. .." 

With all this uniqueness it may be surprising to find that eight pounds of college brochures (literally—I weighed them) from schools as diverse as Albright and Amherst still tend to sketch, much like the fashion catalogs that appear so to have influenced them, a remarkably similar picture of the model undergrad in their student blurbs. It's an appealing picture, to be sure. He is intensely curious, eager to "explore" the universe of the mega- curriculum. At the same time, this ideal student is so full of passion and commitment as barely to be contained within ivy walls. He is both cosmopolitan and socially committed, equally at home in soup kitchens and Paris cafis, Indian reservations and Japanese teahouses. Above all else, he is "creative," a word that is so much a clichi among American educationists these days that it has truly earned deconstructive quotation marks. Released from the chains of required courses and traditional disciplines, the model student soars into the unknown, discovering "new perspectives." This student is a new Renaissance man or woman gliding gracefully between the sciences and the arts, making what the Fall 1995 Brandeis Review calls "Curricular Connections: Tools for Genius." Every student may be an island—but what a magnificent island, what a fertile island.

These model kids sound prodigiously impressive. Franklin and Marshall showcases one student who traveled to Jerusalem to study the theological manuscripts of Sir Isaac Newton and another who went to Tanzania to make a documentary film on homeless children. Yet these blurbs sometimes have the breathless, romantic quality of a slush-pile movie script which should give pause to those who look back on their college years with a clear eye. Take this description by a class of '95 Connecticut College graduate, a narrative worth quoting at length: "In the classroom, my learning crossed disciplines. . ..I designed two independent studiesand as Georgia O'Keefe once said, 'began to voice things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me. ' A deep personal interest in American Indian issues and economic development surfaced this year through an independent study in the economics department and an internship at the nearby Mashantucket Pequot reservation.In September I will go seek my fortunes in Missoula, Montana. There, I hope to work on the Flathead Indian Reservation on economic development, learn to play cello, collect tacky magnets, and drive a truck. Who knows? Maybe I'll take up fly fishing and marry a cowboy."

The dreaminess of this scenario is no accident. For the libertarian curriculum and the discourse of freedom and independence that have nurtured this Emma Bovary of the nineties are mythological to the core. The myth of the college brochure begins with an illusory student: not just independent but self-motivated, passionate, self-aware, well informed. Consider instead the reality of the college student just graduated from an American public school. Now he must decide how best to meet his educational needs. Surveys suggest he knows little about, among many other things, American history. Does he ponder his ignorance in this area and sign up for an American history course? Of course not. The libertarian curriculum neglects the obvious: the student doesn't know what he doesn't know. Further, he doesn't know what he needs to know to be a well-informed member of society. That's why someone invented required courses.

If, as is undoubtedly the case, some students are guided by "deep personal interests" in choosing their courses by the passion and drive admissions directors like to celebrate—most are moved by more mundane concerns. Michael Moffatt, the anthropologist who studied Rutgers students, found that they picked their courses not out of passion or even curiosity but after " intricate calculations of and trade-offs of necessity, interest, convenience, availability, and difficulty." In the glossy brochures, students may seek new challenges; in the dorms, they cross off demanding professors and no-time-for- breakfast 9 AM classes. Denied any clear vision of the purpose of a general education, students, Moffatt found, divided Rutgers's mega-curriculum "in a very simple way. There were useful subjects, subjects that presumably led to good careers, and there were useless ones," namely the humanities.

This coarse practicality suggests that the socially concerned, activist student may be another ivory-tower fantasy character rather than a flesh-and- blood undergrad. A longitudinal study by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute begun in 1985 found that though political commitment and activism among students increases somewhat during their years on campus, the numbers are unimpressive, and such commitment as there is doesn't last. Twenty-four percent of seniors cited a "desire to influence politics" as an important goal, up from 19 percent when these same students were freshmen. A mere four years after graduation, the member had plummeted to 14 percent. Similarly, 27 percent of freshmen called "participating in community action programs" an important goal. This number had increased to 35 percent by the time they were seniors but had dipped to 23 percent four years later. Evidently, the modest number of students influenced by campus politics remember their lessons about social activism about as long as they remember Anthropology 101.

This may be because in the real world, unlike the J. Crewland of the college brochure, kids tend to follow what their elders do rather than what they say. Professors may mouth elevated precepts about social justice, but they also serve as a good model for the crude vocationalism that Moffatt and many others have noted. Students learn it in the many courses designed by professors more interested in developing a paper for the next conference in San Diego than in educating the next generation. The boutique freshman seminar, one of the few required courses left in many schools, reads like a card catalog of recently completed dissertations and books and articles in progress, with salable, career-boosting titles like "Sisterhood in Contemporary Literature" or "Animal Rights and Wrongs."

But students' careerism and disengagement can only very partially be blamed on individual professors who are, after all, laboring in a system that values success on the conference circuit over good teaching in the classroom. The truth is, these qualities are inevitable consequences of the solipsism inherent in the shopping mall curriculum. Hundreds, if not thousands, of courses train today's students in the mystique of specialization, which renders archaic the entire notion of a shared world of knowledge. Over four years, each student may well have enrolled in more than 30 classes entirely different not just from those of his roommate but from those of his entire dormitory. The freshman seminar can have as many listings as a small-town phone book—75 different possibilities at the University of Pennsylvania, for instance. Notes a student from Grinnell: "I always find it mildly ironic that the one course everyone at this college is 'forced' to take turns out to be the one thing that presents students with the most diverse individual set of experiences."

Such an approach, with its glorification of unencumbered autonomy and individual choice, provides no foundation for social solidarity and active citizenship. For one thing, students in all likelihood will graduate without any real grasp of their nation's history or its intellectual or cultural traditions, now lumped with the "useless" humanities. The sovereign, solitary undergraduate learns that he wanders in a universe of his own making, rather than in what the authors of Habits of the Heart call a "community of memory." Having undermined any means of evoking in their students a sense of a shared past or a shared destiny, professors instead attempt to instill feelings of i lite oblige, for the homeless, say, or for AIDS patients. Sure, concern for the downtrodden is an essential part of our civic obligation; but the amnesiac, however compassionate, does not a citizen make.

And here is the underlying irony of the libertarian mega-curriculum. Contemporary academics like to speak of "de-centering" or "subverting" the individual. The autonomous self is a fiction, they aver; the "individual" is but a passive medium through which the voices of gender, class, race, and ethnicity recite their ideologies. Yet oddly enough, those same professors have promoted an educational system that exalts the autonomous individual—the green, inchoate, adolescent individual at that. In demolishing the notion of a relatively stable body of knowledge, a traditional set of disciplines to which developing thinkers must apprentice themselves, they have invited their students, though half formed and ill educated, to indulge in a fantasy of their own extravagant powers. Here is how the dean of admissions describes the academic experience at his reputable liberal arts college: "At Franklin and Marshall, we don't hand you a packaged education. We help you identify the materials for your own educational endeavors; you then develop skills with which you can mold those materials most creatively and effectively." The "packaged education," which I take to mean the vanquished core curriculum of literature, philosophy, and the arts and sciences, is translated into " materials" on which the young can exercise their "creativity," as if they were giants standing on the shoulders of dwarfs. The legacy of the past has no real power over our young talents: it is merely a set of "tools for genius. " 

In this sense, one could reasonably argue that the current curriculum is more anti-cultural than multicultural. While some professors may rail about the hold of race and gender on identity, the structure of the education they have invented gives a very different message: that the past has no weight. It is not a living presence in which each of us is inextricably embedded. Rather, it is bunk, a barrier to self fulfillment. This shrugging attitude toward the past is epitomized by both the relentless presentism and topicality of today's college courses and the blurring of the traditional disciplines. Yet by promoting a skeptical attitude toward the very idea of an independently existing, historically continuous reality, the postmodernists seduce the next generation into imagining themselves as having stepped outside cultural constraint, precisely the opposite of what they profess to believe possible.

If these ideas sound vaguely familiar, that's because they hark back to an American tradition embodied most strongly by Emerson and Thoreau. "Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past?" asked Emerson. "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?" In short, the ideal of the individual released from history and social identity, and creating his own reality, has a fine American pedigree. This ideal may be highly problematic as the foundation for an educational philosophy and, for that matter, as the basis for a coherent culture. Still, don't count on Emerson's ideas' becoming the subject of intelligent debate. Most students, ignorant of the past he epitomizes, look as if they will simply be condemned to repeat it. So much for the freedom and creativity of the next generation.

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